In the Toronto Star on Sunday, I read all about the I Spit On Your Grave remake. A friend told me that this remake was in the works about a year ago, and I passed judgment instantly when I heard that the director was a male. I would really love to see this film remade under the direction of a female. However, the chances of that happening were slim (I knew this). After reading the article in the Toronto Star, it sounds as though the director, Steven Monroe, knows what he’s talking about. He realizes that horror fans have high expectations, and he realizes that sexualizing the female in any shape or form when it comes to a rape-revenge film is dangerous, dangerous territory.
When I was completing my undergraduate work at the University of Toronto in the cinema studies program, I wrote an essay on the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978, Meir Zarchi). I’d like to share it with you, but first, I want to post two clips: a preview for both the original and remake of the film.
The original was made in 1978, directed by Meir Zarchi, starring Camille Keaton.
The remake, 2010, directed by Steven Monroe, starring Sarah Butler.
These are my thoughts on I Spit On Your Grave – a film that deals with one of the most upsetting, disturbing, and difficult subjects of all time. It’s long – so I’m just leaving you with the main-idea paragraphs.
The Day Of The Woman was finished in 1978. The script was written in the early ‘70s. A brief historical context for which the film was coming out of will aid in understanding some of the themes/ways in which issues/characters are portrayed in the film. During this decade, the United States was undergoing some major changes as many of the social dimensions and perspective toward issues were increasingly seen in much more liberal perspectives (Hoeveler, 105). The role of women in nuclear families took a radical shift from those of earlier generations. Women held important roles in society outside of the home, and women had jobs on par with men. Social norms and laws were increasingly framed in favor of women. At the start of the 70s, President Nixon proved to be popular with the American people, in that he sent the last American troops from Vietnam, and took some steps forward in normalizing relations with China and Russia (Cook, 45). However, due to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, there was a sudden lack of confidence and assertiveness in authoritative establishments (Hoeveler, 120). The obvious monstrousness of the war undermined the credibility of the system and this questioning of authority spread logically to a questioning of the entire social structure that validated it, and ultimately to patriarchy itself: feminism was on the rise, social institutions, the family, and the symbolic figure of the father were all questioned during this period. As a social movement, feminism in the ‘70s largely focused on limiting or eradicating gender inequality and promoted women’s rights, interests, and issues in society. It also incorporated concern about the effect of gender roles on men, and encouragement for men to change and transcend traditional male roles and norms of masculinity (Wood, 49). The feminist movement became popular and widespread in the 1970s due to the increasing number of women working outside of the home, branching out of the stereotypical nuclear family setting with the dominant male father figure at the forefront. At this time, advancements were also being made in feminist film theory. Film theorist Laura Mulvey (whom I will refer to later in my reading of the film) published her article Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema in Screen journal in 1975 and the article is so influential and important that it is still taught in almost all cinema studies courses in North America. According to Mulvey’s paradigm, the threat of castration (as absence and lack) posed by the image of the female form in Hollywood cinema is contained through a sexualized objectification of that form, whether fetishistic-scopohphilic (woman displayed as erotic spectacle, rendered through unthreatening by the aggressive, controlling male gaze) or sadistic-voyeuristic (woman investigated and eventually controlled through punishment) in nature (Mulvey, 58-68). This articulation of punishment towards women in the cinema will be examined further in this essay’s discussion of The Day Of The Woman.
Meir Zarchi’s The Day Of The Woman, which he initially intended to show audiences in the 1970s, was not seen in theatres by the general public and critics until 1980. The crisis in ideological and social anxieties of the 70s had not been resolved by the early 80s. Instead, it had simply been forgotten and masked. Feminism had become threatening to the structure and the standard American nuclear family. A trend in throughout the 80s was to bring back the all American male hero. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, and his era was exemplar for competitive individualistic attitudes, but also those of being a responsible husband and father. These clear -cut roles between men and women provided a template for Hollywood’s construction of the success ethic in films coming out of the 1980s. Whatever the feminist movement had jeopardized, the strong, individualistic male figure was taking back the dominant role in terms of the family and the workplace (Jordan, 86). Violent, horror, and rape-revenge films in the 1970s had a critical function. The films participated and depicted in metaphorical ways what Gregory Waller calls “America’s public debates” (Waller, 257). The films would engage with current events such as Watergate, the prolonged withdrawal from Vietnam, the destruction of patriarchy and the nuclear family. There is a particularly severe repression of female activity and aggressiveness in our culture today as there was in the 1970s and 1980s. The feminist movement was acting out against this in the 1970s and in the 1980s, women were repressed, oppressed, and punished. Examining films from the 70s and throughout the 80s, this shift back to repression of women and reconstruction of the patriarchal family is clearly evident (Wood, 204). This ideological shift affected the audience opinion of Meir Zarchi’s The Day Of The Woman. This same shift also led to the title of his film being changed by the film’s distributors. After the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the trend of female punishment and nudity in violent films became a common occurrence. This film portrays women being killed, often from the murder’s point of view or from the perspective of the male gaze, thus forcing the audience to participate in the murderer’s voyeurism (Clover, 48). Therefore, The Day Of The Woman was not only distributed under a different title to appeal to a new type of audience, but it was perceived by the general public and critics as a different kind of movie, coming out of a new, masculine-assertive ideological movement.
In my own personal reading of the film, I do not intend to prove that The Day Of The Woman has particular artistic merit or that it can offer us insight into the nature of sexual violence in the past or the present. It is just that there are spectators, including myself, who do not find its values any more shocking than those of many critically acceptable mainstream film and videos. The Day Of The Woman is not as feminist or sympathetic to the female as Zarchi would like to believe it is. The film is problematic in terms of feminist theory and filmmaking, but I do believe the film has many redeemable qualities that could be considered as part of the feminist camp. The Day Of The Woman is essentially a film about a female justified killer. Jennifer, the female protagonist appears explicitly as a castrator. However, she is brutally raped during the first half of the film and with this, the film also generates an ambiguous, double-edged issue. The way in which the film depicts her rape is brutal and perhaps unnecessary. It is also worth noting that Jennifer is a vengeful victim who kills, yet she goes unpunished after committing her crimes, which the film regards as justified due to what the four men did to her. In her book, “Men, Women, And Chainsaws,” Carol Clover discusses a theory of The Final Girl, the lone woman who stands at the end of the movie, still alive after having seen her friends killed:
Jennifer’s character seems to go beyond this idea of the Final Girl, because once the four rapists are at bay, the roles are reversed and The Day Of The Woman becomes a film that is about her pursuit of the men rather than the other way around. Stylistically, the film represents a grim, brutal naturalism. During the rape scenes that take up most of the first half of the movie, Jennifer is covered in mud and blood, her attackers are made to seem like crazed animals, and among the country redneck rapists the only man capable of securing any sympathetic male identification is a retarded boy who is coerced into participating in the rape by the others. The Day Of The Woman visually unites us with Jennifer Hills as she strangles, castrates, axes, and dismembers her victims during the entire last half of the movie (Green, 190). I believe that in this film, the male consciousness is not so much divided as reintegrated. Jennifer is a hero, and this film is not about the masochistic erotics of death, but instead about the sadistic erotics of brutal violence. Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) becomes a figure much like a Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson character, the virtuous killer.
Barbara Creed writes that The Day Of The Woman is misogynistic in its representation of women. She argues this because the scenes in which Jennifer carries out her revenge are deliberately eroticized. Jennifer engages in intercourse with Matthew before killing him, and she also uses her sexuality to lure Johnny into the bathtub with her. Zarchi argues that after being raped, sex is nothing to Jennifer. It is meaningless. Creed states that the “woman is made monstrous because she castrates, or kills, the male during coition” (Creed, 129). However, this can only be true if Jennifer is made out to be monstrous to male viewers. It is possible that some male audience members might feel threatened, or hate Jennifer for being an independent writer who writes for a woman’s magazine. She is a strong, single, city girl who makes her own living.. For some men, this might be a threat. My own personal response is that she is rightfully taking enjoyable vengeance on a bunch of evil rapists, but I am female spectator thus I do not feel the anxiety a male spectator might experience. As a female spectator, I enjoyed the death and castration of the male characters. Barbara Creed specifically writes about The Day Of The Woman:
The rape scenes are filmed in such a way that the woman becomes a complete and total victim. She is hunted down, degraded, humiliated and tortured. She is beaten, kicked, and punched. When one of the rapists assaults her... he says that what he likes in a woman is ‘total submission’ (Creed, 126).
The rape scene is indeed painful to watch, and I do believe that it is not entirely necessary to show such a horrific scene in order to make the spectator feel uncomfortable and upset. Still, I do not believe that the film fits Creed’s description of misogynist. The scenes in The Day Of The Woman where the vengeful rape victim blows away, castrates, and destroys her tormentors serves several purposes for the masculine audience. The film punishes each rapist one by one. Johnny is castrated, which is something that Mulvey states as every male spectator’s biggest fear (Mulvey, 35). The film also allows male viewers to identify with the commission of sadistic violence by a woman, Jennifer. The film does often present problems that are ambiguous, if only in a limited sense inscribed in spectators’ reception of the text. To some extent the film offers a different attitude from the male-centered, voyeuristic attitude toward rape that Molly Haskell describes in her discussion of earlier films that portrayed rape, From Reverence To Rape (Haskell, 3-7). Haskell states that there is no textual ambiguity in these earlier films, but rather only an occasional and emotional invocation of the law/police set against the visual enjoyment of the act. The law does not come into play in The Day Of The Woman. Jennifer takes control of the situation herself. In The Day Of The Woman, rape now has consequences and a price and that price is utterly embedded in the traditional male symbolization of vengeful heroism (Green, 191).
The Day Of The Woman depicts violent aggression and hatred towards women while simultaneously condemning those very attitudes. The point of view in The Day Of The Woman belongs mainly to Jennifer. Instead of getting close-up, point-of-view shorts of a terrified woman staring into the camera (a cinematic device equating viewer with the attacker), the film features similar shots of the rapist’s threatening faces; the view is thus often forced into the position of Jennifer, the victim, and not the villain. This occurs during the first rape sequence in which Andy and Stanley chase after Jennifer, only to bump into Johnny while attempting to run away. Johnny rips her clothing off and she is laid out on the ground, held down by the other men. Several close-ups of Johnny’s face are shown from the point of view of Jennifer. These shots are especially horrific because they are a direct assault on the viewer. It’s the intimate and personal connection one consistently feels with Jennifer Hills that makes The Day Of The Woman also superior to other depictions of rape and violent sexual experiences in other films. Films of this sort are often extremely exploitative in their use of violence and sex. For example, although Baise Moi is directed and written by two females (who claim the film has feminist motivations), the film itself is problematic in terms of feminist theory and filmmaking due to its total sexualization of the female form.
In The Day Of The Woman, the identification occurs partly from the disturbing severity of the rape scenes, but also from at least one scene that would not be included in the film had it originally been intended for the exploitation market. The scene I am referring to occurs at the setting of the edge of a river near the country home rented by Jennifer for the summer. It’s the day before she is gang raped, and as she lies in the hammock, jotting down notes for her book, her words are heard in a voice over. The spectator is privy to her thoughts and feelings in the form of female subjectivity.
Perhaps the most crucial scene in the movie in terms of feminist understanding is the castration scene in which Jennifer kills Johnny. The camera work in this scene is very simple. Zarchi handles the entire sequence in a simple A-B-A sequence of shots. Shot A is a medium long shot, consisting of Jennifer and Johnny in the bathtub together, as she starts to pleasure him under water; this action is off-camera, obscured by the edge of the bathtub and under the bathwater (however, the spectator understands what she is doing). Shot B is a close up consisting of Jennifer’s right hand, reaching under the bathmat to fetch a large knife. Then the film returns to shot A, where Jennifer manages to get the knife into the water without Johnny seeing (his eyes are closed), and she then castrates him. Zarchi maintains this shot as Johnny realizes what Jennifer has done, and copious amounts of blood pop up from under the water. According to film theorist Laura Mulvey, the patriarchal society is a phallocentric society. This means that it recognizes the male gender and the sexuality of men as the dominant norm. But phallocentrism depends, in Freudian terms, on the image of a castrated woman. This image gives order to the world, the male dominated conception of society. Since women represent the absence of a penis, she embodies the fear of castration, which is so fundamental for the constitution of the male subject. The female figure represents a lack of the phallus, representing castration threat, which is terrifying for the male gender and the male spectator. Mulvey also discusses how men deal with this castration threat: by fetishistic scopophilia or by sadism. Jennifer’s rapists accomplish both of these things (Mulvey, 58-70). When they rape her, they make something of her body to satisfy themselves and they assert control and punish her for being female. However, Jennifer makes the man’s worst nightmare come true by castrating him. Not only is Johnny left without his phallus (literally), but the male spectator is assaulted and castrated as well. I am not implying that Mulvey would in any way approve of this film, nor call it feminist by any means.
Just before Jennifer gets into the bathtub (Johnny is already laying in the tub covered in bubbles), they have quite a lengthy conversation while Jennifer stands in front of the mirror, looking at herself and playing with her hair. This shot of the female looking into the mirror was made popular in the noir films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. These mirror shots are a cinematic technique prevalent in noir, where the female will stare into the mirror ignoring the man she will either use to achieve her goals, of in Jennifer’s case, kill. The femme fatale characters in noir films were often narcissistic and they would gaze at their own image in the mirror several times. The scene where Jennifer stares at herself in the mirror before getting in the bathtub with Johnny has something in common with the mirror scenes in noir films. This scene represents the nature of Jennifer (and femme fatales alike), where nothing and no one is what it seems (Snyder, 2001). Scott Snyder argues that in noir films, the audience retains an image of the nontraditional female as powerful and independent, not neutralized or punished, which is how Jennifer is seen at the end of The Day Of The Woman (Snyder, 2001). Many typical “strong” women in earlier Hollywood films are often left having to give up the independence they proposed throughout their given films. Invariably, they are destroyed, punished or converted to more traditional roles after learning that their independence was a mistake. Even Katharine Hepburn’s liberated heroines are chastened for their refusal to embrace traditional womanhood and are forced to reform and reassess their values because of their love for the hero (for example, her role in Christopher Strong). In The Day Of The Woman, Jennifer remains an independent hero in all her femininity.
The Day Of The Woman is a crude film that employs every cinematic device to position spectator with victim during both her rape and her acts of revenge. It is a film whose entire duration is predicated on spectators feeling horribly violated. The Day Of The Woman in its entirety provides a narration that is a feminine-masochistic jolt. Due to the length and brutality of the rape scene (which I would argue is somewhat unnecessary in order to achieve what Zarchi claims he wanted to), the film’s pro-female intentions are EXTREMELY problematic. Therefore, I believe that the issues surrounding the film are feminist, but the film itself is DEFINITELY NOT. Giving the film a title like I Spit On Your Grave changes the meaning of the text and any spectator going to see a film with this title would expect a horror or exploitation film, therefore coming into the theatre with preconceived notions. Regardless of how the rape scene is shot, the length and realistic feel of the rape scene(s) possesses elements of exploitation. However, the film is about a woman’s redemption and Jennifer Hills takes matters into her own hands, and as she kills her rapists one by one. The male gaze is at times rejected and the male is castrated; physically for Johnny, and visually for the male spectator.